Summary: 1986, with an Assistant reading the part of Philemon. An imaginary set of letters between Paul and Philemon, emphasizing that a new relationship with Christ changes every human relationship, and calls for forgiveness and mutual support.
Among all the weighty theological treatises the apostle Paul wrote to the churches he had established, among all the complex sentences and profound thoughts and ponderous pronouncements, there is one little gem from the hand of the great apostle that is quite different.
The little letter to Philemon stands alone among Paul's letters as the only one addressed simply to an individual. The letters to Timothy and to Titus, while they bear the names of individuals, are clearly written not only for the person to whom they are addressed, but for a wider audience as well. But Philemon is intimate, personal, a direct appeal from a Christian brother to another Christian brother about a matter involving a third Christian brother. I think it has a charm and an appeal and a message for us today.
We do not know a great deal about the man Philemon; from the text we can gather that he was a leader in an early Christian church, prominent enough in that church to host its meetings in his own home. That likely means that he was a man of some substance, to have had room enough to hold a group of believers … probably in the city of Colossae, by the way … and to have been able to own at least one slave or servant.
The slave is Onesimus, and he is the subject of this little letter. Somehow he had run away from his master and had made his way to Rome, where Paul was in prison. And, strange as it may seem, he had found Paul, visited Paul, and then had been led to faith in Christ by Paul.
Now when Onesimus became a Christian, some things had to be dealt with in his life. That always happens, by the way. You cannot claim to be Christian and leave untouched and unexamined all the relationships in your life. You cannot develop a relationship to God in Christ and then leave every other relationship as it was. We learned that last week from John, and now Paul in his own way is going to reinforce it for us. But Paul and Onesimus must have had some long and fascinating conversations. Onesimus ran away from Philemon, his Christian master, but now he had met a new master, Christ himself. And what would that do, what should that do, between him and Philemon? What would Philemon think now? What new dimensions could spring up between them? Could they just go back to the way things had been and pretend that nothing had happened? Could Onesimus just keep on running and wipe out his past experiences with Philemon? Clearly Paul felt that something radically life-transforming was now taking place. And so he penned this little letter to interpret it for both Philemon and Onesimus; he penned this little letter to teach all men and women in all ages something about the transformation in human relationships that occurs when Christ intervenes in your life.
I've said we do not know very much about either Onesimus or Philemon. But we surely can exercise creative imagination, under the spirit of God, using the Biblical material from not only this letter, but also from Acts and Colossians, and we can imagine together what it might have been like if instead of one letter only we had a whole file of correspondence. I am asking you this morning to turn on your imaginations with me and to open the Paul and Philemon correspondence file.
PAUL: My dear Philemon, it has been too long since I have seen you or any others of the church in Colossae. But I want you to understand that that is not by choice. I am now a prisoner in Rome. You remember that I have wanted for so long to go to Rome and to meet with the Christians here; and you remember that I want, too, to go on to Spain and begin some churches there. And so when Governor Festus and King Agrippa imprisoned me and kept on questioning me, I saw my opportunity and claimed my right as a Roman citizen. I demanded to be sent to Rome for trial; you see, better to go to Rome a prisoner than to stay in Asia a free man, but with no way to move ahead with what God has called me to do. Philemon, one of the things I will be sharing with you is that there is sometimes a very thin line, a very thin line, between freedom and captivity.
Here is what I am really getting at. I've just had a visitor, one you will know very well. Onesimus, your servant, has made his way to Rome and has been to see me. And I want to ask you to do something for him and for me. I want to ask you to forgive him for running away. I want you to receive him not as a slave but as a brother. Will you do that for me, Philemon? Your friend, Paul.